The Long, Hard Trail
“You cannot count the miles until you feel them.”
Townes Van Zandt
I had planned this hike several years ago but was unable to do it due to conflicts. Having already completed the southernmost 100 miles of the Long Trail as part of the AT, it seemed to make sense to break the remaining 172 miles into two roughly equivalent length sections. I selected early August as the optimal time frame – post black fly season but before most of the school/youth groups hit the trail. I had a nagging left knee issue (likely patellar tendonitis) since April. It seemed to be getting a little better and wasn’t bothering me during practice hikes so wasn’t a major concern. More troubling was bursitis in my right hip that had appeared out of nowhere several weeks before the hike. It was painful even while walking but was not getting any worse during training and responded well to ibuprofen. I stopped running in June to give the knee time to heal so was not in the best cardiovascular shape but logged over 100 mikes of practice training hikes with my pack. I decided to launch the hike despite that fact that I was not 100% physically.
The Long Trail is the oldest long distance hiking trail in the United States, constructed by the Green Mountain Club between 1910 and 1930. 272 miles in length, it runs north along the spine of the Green Mountains from the Vermont – Massachusetts border to the Canadian border. En route, it crosses all of Vermont’s 4000 foot peaks: Mansfield, Killington, Ellen, Camel’s Hump, and Abraham. It served as the model for the Appalachian Trail and other long-distance hiking trails with shelters and lodges spaced at regular intervals. The two inch by six inch rectangular white blaze marking was used on the Long Trail well before it was adopted by the Appalachian Trail. The Long Trail has a well-deserved reputation for being particularly gnarly. In fact, it was selected as the most difficult long-distance hiking trail in the country by Outside Magazine. The 80 mile stretch that I was covering on this section was marked by 6 gaps:
Sherburne Pass (US Rte 4) – milepost 104 , elevation 2150 ft
Brandon Gap (VT 73) – milepost 124, elevation 2178 ft
Middlebury Gap (VT 125) – milepost 134, elevation 2144 ft
Lincoln Gap (Lincoln Gap Rd)- milepost 151, elevation 2428 ft
Appalachian Gap (VT 17) – milepost 162, elevation 2375 ft
Winooski River (US Rte 2) – milepost 184, elevation 340 ft
I had arranged a shuttle to transfer me from the Long Trail parking lot at Rte 2 where I was leaving my car south to the Inn at Long Trail at Sherburne Pass. Inn at Long Trail was one of my favorite stops on the AT and I was anxious to pay it a return visit. I went through my pack carefully the evening of August 7th to make sure everything was in place. I set the alarm for 3:30 am the next morning wanting to get an early start to avoid weekday commuter traffic around New York City. I actually awoke a little before the alarm, grabbed a quick breakfast and threw one last dehydrated meal from the freezer into my food bag. I was on the road by 4:15 am with a large mug of coffee to keep me company. I breezed through the NYC metropolitan area and was making good time on I-87. I pulled in to a service plaza to refuel and went to get my credit cards out of one of the compartments in my pack. They weren’t there! Panicking, I rifled through my pack looking for them to no avail. I was sure I had put them in my pack last night. I called Doug McKain, the shuttle provider, to let him know that I had really screwed up and apparently left my credit cards and most of my cash in Delaware. I had made reservations at the Inn at Long Trail and the Hyde Away Inn in Waitsfield on-line so they likely already had my credit card info. But I still needed cash for gas for the return trip and other incidentals. Doug graciously told me I could pay him later. We said goodbye ant then I made one more search of the pack for the missing items. To my surprise, I found my cash and credit cards in a zip lock baggie inside my food bag! I must have put them there when I added the last dehydrated meal to the food bag before I left. Your mind does strange things at 3:00 in the morning. I breathed a big sigh of relief and continued north to Vermont without incident.
Along the way, I stopped in the small town of Vergennes, VT for a tasty lunch at the 3 Squares Café. I called Doug to let him know I would arrive at the parking area around 1:00 pm. He informed me that he would also be shuttling another hiker who was bailing out of a hike early down to Lincoln Gap. When I pulled into the Long Trail parking lot at Rte. 2, I saw a young hiker stretched out in the grass. I asked him if he was waiting for Doug McKain. Yes, he said and introduced himself as Cole from Rhode Island. He had started north of Mt. Mansfield and was planning on going south to Lincoln Gap but the long descent from Mansfield really bothered his knees so he was aborting the hike. Underestimating the trail would be a recurrent theme among hikers I met throughout the next week. Doug pulled in, we loaded our gear into his van and headed south. After dropping off Cole, I arrived at Inn at Long Trail around 3:00 pm. It had not changed much in the intervening years since Fred Kruesi and I stopped here on an AT section hike in August, 1999. I checked into my room and then had a veggie burger dinner in the Irish pub along with a Guinness on-tap. There were lots of other hikers around. I assumed most were Appalachian Trail thru hikers. I was anxious to get on the trail but worried that my physical issues might lead me to crash and burn. The odds of a successful hike, I surmised, were about 50%.